Falling in love, through the eyes of others | Sofia, Bulgaria

In the last couple of months, I have been falling in love with Sofia all over again. My turbulent love affair with the city has been fairly well documented here – both its shining moments of glory and the rough times, but lately I feel like my crush on it is reaching new heights. There have been a few times in the last weeks, when I haven’t been thoroughly annoyed with it, that I’ve felt like my heart was going to explode with affection.

It’s a combination of things, really, that leads to this renewed enamorment. I was gone for a few months, so being here still has a fresh new feeling to it – I get to hang around my house, see old friends and family, walk my favorite streets and pop into my usual cafés and bars. A bit like falling back into the arms of an old and comfortable lover, after being away and forgetting the reasons you left in the first place.

Another reason for my renewed affection is that spring is finally here, everybody is coming out of their winter-induced comas, the sun is shining, the days are getting warmer and longer, the air is filled with the smell of blossoming plants and there is plenty to do and see. Spring and the beginning of summer is arguably the time of year when Sofia is at its most charming – it becomes that bright-eyed boy with the disarming smile whom you simply cannot resist.

But perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the company of people who were visiting Sofia from abroad – and there is nothing like seeing the city through their eyes to make me discover it anew and fall in love with it all over again.

I first had this feeling last spring, when much of April, May and June were spent hanging out with old and new friends visiting from abroad (the fun-fun-filled visit of my favorite twins is documented here and here), randomly encountering travelers and the regular hunting down of foreigners I had to find and interview for the weekly column “The Road to Sofia” that I was writing for the One Week in Sofia magazine at the time.* This year, it started again when I worked for the Sofia Film Fest and spent two weeks running around the city in the company of filmmakers from all over the world and more recently, when I hung out with my dear friends Mark, Melody and their daughter Jenna, and read some of my favorite blogs by ex-pats in Bulgaria, Karolinka and Whitney.

I love hosting, hanging out and showing around Sofia to visitors from abroad, as well as hearing their stories for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest, and not entirely altruistic one is that – although I often take them to my usual haunts and do things I would normally do, being with them makes me experience the city through their eyes, rediscover it and fall in love with it all over again.

Simply as a resident of Sofia, I’m more likely to notice and be consumed by the usual downfalls of living in this city, from the petty annoyances to the pretty serious and horrific symptoms of an inefficient city: the broken sidewalks, the packs of sometimes aggressive homeless dogs, the shameless rip-off taxi drivers, the persistent lack of universally good customer service, the mostly inefficient public transportation (although I hear the metro is quite good, if it fits into one’s daily route), the relative homogeneity and blatant xenophobia, racism and homophobia, the lack of infrastructure to make biking around the city safe and accessible, the questionable new architecture and the tragic fate of much of the old. It’s a very long list.

And it’s not that I ever forget about these things. I think about them all the time (also in the general context of the difficult decision to stay and live in Bulgaria). It’s just that it becomes easier to overlook them in favor of all the great things about Sofia (and, by proxy, many of the things I love about living in Bulgaria) when I am with people who can’t stop marveling at them: the lush parks, the delicious (and cheap) food, the cool bars, the old Socialist monuments (especially when they become a platform for contemporary art discussions), the view from my flat, the super affordable taxis (when they don’t cheat), the charming cobbled streets, the proximity of the mountain, the coziness of being in a city of two+ million and always running into friends on the street. Kind of like that boyfriend whose issues you’re all hung up about but who becomes irresistibly appealing when your friends gush over how great he is, having visitors who notice all the great things about Sofia makes me stop taking them for granted and appreciate them, and – in big and small ways, fall in love with Sofia again and again.

I don’t say all of this lightly. My fraught relationship with the city started about eight years ago, when I came back to live here after spending half of my life up to that point abroad. I came back tentatively and without plans to stay permanently. Although I continued to travel extensively, in that almost-decade I made Sofia my home.

I am still very much torn, on an almost daily basis, over the dilemma of whether to stay and live in Sofia or to go elsewhere (or, to put it in other words, on top of the proverbial dash). Luckily, the times we live in make the dilemma bearable, if not entirely avoidable – the national, political, economic and even technical impediments to living not in a single place, but rather between different places are becoming fewer and fewer.

Because I strongly believe that home is where the heart is, Sofia will always be a home, as a part of my heart will always be here. I will always think of it and sometimes even miss it when I am away and my heart will grow more enamored with the city with every visitor and at every return from traveling.

But before my inconstant lover of a city and I get sick of each other (again), I’m already making plans for my next trip, only so that I can come back with a renewed affection.

*The perfectly illustrative photo above was taken last spring by – and with – one lovely visitor to Sofia, who even submitted to be interviewed by me. Thanks, B.!

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Balancing on top of the dash | Here, there and in between

I’m well aware that this blog is usually nothing but light-hearted fun and unicorns, and yet today I feet *compelled* to write about something quite serious.

I just read a short text, titled “Here – there” and written by Yana Buhrer Tavanier, a friend, journalist and passionate activist, who will surely change the world (and not just according to me). [To top it all off, she even has a thing for taking pictures of her feet (see here, here, here and here), so that makes her extra great in my eyes.] The full text [in Bulgarian] is here. Although an entire translation into English would surely be useful, it suffices to say that this wonderful and at the same time extremely unsettling text addresses the difficult and dramatic choice of many Bulgarians to live, stay and work in their (our) own country – a choice that they are forced to constantly re-examine, question and doubt by the circumstances they face every day; a choice made with the best intentions, but one that is rendered absurd, almost to the point of lunacy, on a regular basis. Some Bulgarians tough it out and stick to this decision. Others eventually give up and leave. Many (of us) are in a constant limbo that lasts years and – possibly – doesn’t end.

In her text, Yana references an older article [also in Bulgarian, here] by Yovko Lambrev, in which he writes:

“And if the first wave [of emigrants] were those pushed by circumstance and the adventurers, then the second one will be painfully frightening, because those are the people who stayed behind to change things, the believers, the dreamers, the brave, the people who are not followers but creators. Because it isn’t frightening to hit rock bottom, but it will be frightening if it turned out that the entire impulse and energy, concentrated in pushing ourselves off the bottom, turned out to be insufficient because of too many people who ride without paying, an overload of baggage or gas that’s been diluted with water. It is demotivating and disappointing if your calling was to create, to change or to be good at something that isn’t needed here. Human life is too short to be dedicated only to pushing yourself off the bottom.”

Based on this, Yana considers the constant and unyielding dilemma faced by those who have chosen to stay and live in Bulgaria; the difficult and dramatic wavering between ‘here’ and ‘there’. For most people around her, she writes, staying ‘here’ is a deliberate choice, motivated not by the comfortable proximity of family and friends or the conviction that “Bulgaria is the best,” but by such considerations as civil duty, the feeling that one can be useful and is needed here. Added to them are the reasons presented by ad-agency creative director Yordan Zhechev , who argues that the reasons not to stay can, in fact, be rationalized into reasons for staying: while a complete mess and utter chaos reign in Bulgaria, this makes it possible to experiment and improvise; the lack of continuity and people to learn from allows you to skip over generations entirely and get ahead far and quickly; all is grey and downtrodden, but this makes it easy to stand out and shine.

The issues addressed by the two articles and the talk tugged – violently – at some very sensitive strings in my own heart. These are things that I have personally felt, dealt with, thought and written about for almost a decade now – ever since I came back to Bulgaria after spending exactly half of my life up to that point abroad. Although I made the conscious choice to come back and live here, this difficult decision was – and continues to be, shaken, challenged and questioned on an almost daily basis.

“‘Here’,” Yana writes, “is a choice made some time ago, in which many things have not changed: the mafia guys, the insolent politicians, the absurd outrages (as much as you might fight against them), the sell-out media, the apathy, the baseness, the envy, the hate, the ocean of fools and losers that splashes right under your window.”

I couldn’t have said it more eloquently.

The last sentence in Yana’s text deals me the final blow: “Here – there. If you look more closely, you’ll see a bunch of people crowded on top of the dash.”

***Note: Incidentally, the photo above was taken at the Frankfurt Airport – my usual gateway when traveling from Sofia to pretty much anywhere in the world, and vice versa, and a place where I’ve spent dozens and dozens of hours between flights, pondering about where I’m coming from and/or where I’m going back to. Fitting, I know.

Debris after the frenzy | Sofia, Bulgaria

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. As predicted, the last 10 days were a constant and unyielding frenzy of work, fun, excitement, stress, euphoria, adrenaline, pressure, hellos and goodbyes. Every night in which I was able to sleep more than five hours or spend more than six or seven at home was considered fortunate, while a stroke of luck was needed every day, as I rushed out, to find clean clothes and practical shoes to wear for the next 16 hours.

Yesterday the festival closed and last night I slept for 12 hours straight. This morning, when I noticed this on the floor by my front door and next to my bed, I wondered – for a brief moment, who trashed my house while I was away.

Finding my feet | Montpellier, France

When I stumbled upon these yellow cobblestones in the center of Montpellier, I was instantly – and predictably, reminded of their larger, brighter and more full-of-history distant cousins, which grace the center of Sofia.

I may not be brilliant at a lot of things, but this is one thing I know I am pretty good at (that, and being humble!): I can travel to and live in different places freely, light-heartedly, without being bogged down by homesickness, nostalgia and the longing for home, without the cumbersome impulse to find and latch on to familiar things, to seek out fellow compatriots or to regularly consume luytenitsa or lukanka. Don’t get me wrong, of course I miss friends and family and places that I love, but that’s a constant that happens all the time and everywhere, regardless of whether I am “at home” or traveling or living abroad.

And still, this time, the spontaneous association with Sofia’s cobblestones snuck up on me in an instant, before I could rationalize and wave it away as some sort of unwarranted signal of a sentimental attachment to my hometown.

I am pretty sure that a term must have been coined for this syndrome – the tendency among travelers and ex-pats to spot and latch onto familiar things when they find themselves in a foreign environment with no recognizable points of reference. When searching for what it might be called, among all the coping-with-life-abroad websites aimed at helping people who face culture shock when living and traveling outside of their home country, strangely, one of the search results was a link to a dictionary definition of the idiom ‘to find one’s feet’. Apparently, it means ‘to become familiar with a new place, situation or experience’.

A crazily fitting coincidence, no?

And, as for the term that describes the tendency to look for the familiar when placed in an unfamiliar environment, I wasn’t able to find it. Any ideas?

Faith, Hope and Love | Sofia, Bulgaria

Today, the Eastern Orthodox Church marks the day of Saint Sophia and her three daughters Faith (Vyara), Hope (Nadezhda) and Love (Lyubov). I, on the other hand, am more readily celebrating the day of the city of Sofia.

It took a surge of inspiration, a ladder, a bit of creativity, some blind faith, a little hope and a lot of my sometimes wavering, but – when push comes to shove, unconditional love for Sofia – the city, to take this picture.

*This post is also a special shout-out to Nadeto, whose name day it is today, and who seems to be this blog’s most dedicated reader (Hi, Nade!)